The magnetic North Pole is hurtling towards Siberia so quickly scientists have had to release new data a year ahead of schedule to keep navigation systems working properly
- World Magnetic Model (WMM) gives compasses the means to navigate north
- WMM provides a five year forecast of changes to the Earth’s magnetic field
- The North Pole is moving so rapidly that current estimates weren’t accurate
- Monday’s update showed the magnetic north is leaving the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia at a speed of around 34 miles (55km) per year
Earth’s magnetic North Pole has been wildly shifting towards Russia so quickly that scientists have been forced to publish an update on its actual location a year early.
The World Magnetic Model (WMM) enables compasses to point north and is used in navigation systems. Its latest update revealed the North Magnetic Pole is wandering about 34 miles a year. It crossed the international dateline in 2017 and is leaving the Canadian Arctic on its way to Siberia.
This is causing a navigational nightmare for compasses in smartphones, boats and for airport navigators as well as in some consumer electronics, and WMM was forced to update a year early in order to keep it accurate.
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Earth’s north magnetic pole has been drifting so fast in the last few decades that scientists say that past estimates are no longer accurate enough for precise navigation. The World Magnetic Model was updated on Monday, showing it is wandering about 34 miles (55 km) a year
WMM provides a five year forecast of changes to the Earth’s magnetic field. The US and UK tend to update the location of the North Magnetic Pole every five years in December, but this update came early because of the pole’s faster movement.
It had been hoped that the updated model could be released even earlier, last month, but it was held up by the recent shutdown in the US government, which oversees the project along with the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Turbulence in in the planet’s core, where the motion generates an electric field, has caused the field to change in systems described as ‘akin to weather’.
Airplanes and boats also rely on magnetic north, usually as backup navigation, said University of Colorado geophysicist Dr Arnaud Chulliat, lead author of the WMM.
The military depends on where magnetic north is for navigation and parachute drops, while NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and US Forest Service also use it. GPS is not affected because it’s satellite-based.
Airport runway names are also based on their direction toward magnetic north and their names change when the poles moved.
For example, the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, renamed a runway 1L-19R to 2L-20R in 2009.
Since 1831 when it was first measured in the Canadian Arctic it has moved about 1400 miles (2300 km) towards Siberia.
The magnetic north pole is located at the white star and the individual lines in red and blue show the magentic field lines of Earth. These are used in navigation systems by boats and for airport navigators as well as in some consumer electronics
Its speed jumped from about 9 mph (15 kph) to 34 mph (55 kph) since 2000.
The reason is turbulence in Earth’s liquid outer core. There is a hot liquid ocean of iron and nickel in the planet’s core where the motion generates an electric field, said University of Maryland geophysicist Dr Daniel Lathrop.
Dr Lathrop, who who wasn’t part of the team monitoring the magnetic north pole said: ‘It has changes akin to weather. We might just call it magnetic weather.’
WHY ARE THE EARTH’S MAGNETIC FIELDS MOVING?
The problem lies partly with the moving pole and partly with other shifts deep within the planet.
Liquid churning in Earth’s core generates most of the magnetic field, which varies over time as the deep flows change.
In 2016, for instance, part of the magnetic field temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Satellites such as the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission tracked the shift.
The magnetic south pole is moving far slower than the north.
In general Earth’s magnetic field is getting weaker, leading scientists to say that it will eventually flip, where north and south pole changes polarity, like a bar magnet flipping over.
It has happened numerous times in Earth’s past, but not in the last 780,000 years.
‘It’s not a question of if it’s going to reverse, the question is when it’s going to reverse,’ Dr Lathrop said.
When it reverses, it won’t be like a coin flip, but take 1,000 or more years, experts said.
Dr Lathrop sees a flip coming sooner rather than later because of the weakened magnetic field and an area over the South Atlantic has already reversed beneath Earth’s surface.
That could bother some birds that use magnetic fields to navigate. And an overall weakening of the magnetic field isn’t good for people and especially satellites and astronauts.
The magnetic field shields Earth from some dangerous radiation, Dr Lathrop said.
Scientists in recent years have predicted that Earth’s magnetic field could be gearing up to ‘flip’ – a shift in which the magnetic south pole would become magnetic north, and vice versa. Earth’s magnetic field is illustrated above
WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO EARTH IF ITS POLES FLIPPED?
The Earth’s magnetic field is in a permanent state of change.
Magnetic north drifts around and every few hundred thousand years the polarity flips so a compass would point south instead of north.
The strength of the magnetic field also constantly changes and currently it is showing signs of significant weakening.
Life has existed on the Earth for billions of years, during which there have been many reversals.
There is no obvious correlation between animal extinctions and those reversals. Likewise, reversal patterns do not have any correlation with human development and evolution.
It appears that some animals, such as whales and some birds use Earth’s magnetic field for migration and direction finding.
Since geomagnetic reversal takes a number of thousands of years, they could well adapt to the changing magnetic environment or develop different methods of navigation.
Radiation at ground level would increase, however, with some estimates suggesting that overall exposure to cosmic radiation would double causing more deaths from cancer. ‘But only slightly,’ said Professor Richard Holme.
‘And much less than lying on the beach in Florida for a day. So if it happened, the protection method would probably be to wear a big floppy hat.’
Electric grid collapse from severe solar storms is a major risk. As the magnetic field continues to weaken, scientists are highlighting the importance off-the grid energy systems using renewable energy sources to protect the Earth against a black out.
‘The very highly charged particles can have a deleterious effect on the satellites and astronauts,’ added Dr Mona Kessel, a Magnetosphere discipline scientist at Nasa.
In one area, there is evidence that a flip is already occurring. ‘The increasing strength of the South Atlantic anomaly, an area of weak field over Brazil, is already a problem,’ said Professor Richard Holme.
The Earth’s climate could also change. A recent Danish study has found that the earth’s weather has been significantly affected by the planet’s magnetic field.
They claimed that fluctuations in the number of cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere directly alter the amount of cloud covering the planet.
Henrik Svensmark, a weather scientist at the Danish National Space Centre who led the team behind the research, believes that the planet is experiencing a natural period of low cloud cover due to fewer cosmic rays entering the atmosphere.